Art Embroidery part II
The term ‘art embroidery’ denoted more than the mechanical execution of the stitches, irrespective of the manual dexterity of the needleworker. For a work to be “artistic”, it also required invention in the selection and arrangement of colours, the choice of suitable materials and above all, good design based on an appreciation of the intellectual quality of medieval ornament. Let’s consider each of these factors in turn.
Design was of paramount importance in art embroidery. In her manual Decorative Needlework (1893), May Morris observed: ‘While inferior work can be tolerated for the sake of design, if that is good, excellent work on a worthless design must be cast aside as labour lost…design is the very essence and soul of beautiful embroidery.’
One of the fundamental tenets of Design Reform was that it should be derived from historical and non-Western ornament, as well as plant and animal sources distilled into simpler, linear motifs. Art embroiderers were encouraged to study the best examples of old work as well as illuminated manuscripts, woodcuts, herbals and figured textiles in medieval paintings in order to understand the essential qualities of good design. Cabbage roses, double dahlias and other exotic blooms, so admired by lovers of Berlin work, were banished for being too complex in form. Exponents of art embroidery turned instead to meadow plants and cottage garden flowers which could be fully expressed by the fewest lines if worked in outline and with the fewest shades if stitched in colour. Non-western ornament provided a rich seam for practitioners and designers alike, many of whom were connoisseurs and collectors of Middle Eastern and Asian decorative arts.
Floral panel, silk on silk, early 1900s, detail
The American author Ella Rodman Church in her beginner’s guide to ornamental needlework (Artistic Embroidery, 1880) noted that ‘the proper arrangement of color is of far greater importance than the regular placing of stitches, and no embroidery can be artistic without it.’ Conventionalism was key. Art embroiderers universally disliked the technique of needle painting, the attempt to create in stitch every nuance and shade ‘till a libellous caricature of natural growth is achieved’. Much better to use a limited palette of flat, simple colours; to avoid ‘startling novelties’; and to play with light and shade in the placing of stitches, particularly when using silks. Needleworkers were urged to avoid aniline dyes ‘as you would poison’. Despite the intensity of their colour, which appealed to the manufacturers of Berlin work, synthetic dyes were seen to offend against every principle of harmony. It was their harshness and unpredictability that led Morris & Co. and many other producers of decorative needlework to use threads coloured with natural dyes derived mainly from plant sources.
Pearsall & Co., Eastern Unfading Dyes thread card, late nineteenth century.
The silks were specially dyed by Thomas Wardle
Textile weavers and thread manufacturers began to work alongside art embroiderers to produce high quality, long lasting materials that replicated the stuffs and threads of old. Tussar silks, figured damasks, Manchester cotton, worsted serge and handwoven linens were all used as grounds. Art embroidery for the home was stitched primarily in crewels and/or silks, the latter occasionally combined with metal thread, as well as inlaid and onlaid appliqué. Through its work on conserving and copying seventeenth-century crewelwork, the Royal School of Art Needlework was instrumental in improving the quality of embroidery wools. The School was also responsible for introducing Japanese gold thread into Britain in 1874. Thomas Wardle’s experiments with dyeing tussar silk from India was to revolutionise decorative needlework.
In 1893, the architect and designer John Dando Sedding (1838-1891) boldly stated: ‘Every old method is at our fingers’ ends. Every ingenious stitch of old humanity has been mastered, and a descriptive name given to it of our own devising.’ The commitment of art embroiderers to revive historic stitch had led Morris and his wife to unpick old pieces and the Royal School of Art Needlework to collect specimens of antique embroidery from which to learn the rudiments of their craft. Prior to the Victorian period, needlework teaching had been an oral tradition; by the late 1870s the printing of instruction books had mushroomed on both sides of the Atlantic, with the American presses occasionally pirating British publications. These manuals were an aide memoire of the core stitches worked in the hand or in a frame. Despite Sedding’s assertion, most practitioners in fact used a small vocabulary of stitch in the belief that ‘excellence of workmanship does not lie in the many curious and difficult varieties of stitch but in the expressive use of a few ordinary ones.’
Four panel screen in the Jacobean style, c. 1890, detail
In my next blog, I will discuss the work of Morris & Co., one of the leading firms of art embroiderers.
© Ornamental Embroidery 2020